It seems about the right time to do my occasional reminder that a movie critic or reviewers' job is not to make an objective declaration of a motion pictures worth. I feel motivated to do this reminder due to the fact the internet is full of people sharpening their proverbial pitchforks over a critic daring to not have the exact opinion on a movie as them.
Did you know Roger Ebert gave Die Hard two out of four stars? I believe Die Hard to be an action movie classic and probably one of my most watched movies ever. I obviously don't agree with Ebert on that one. Even though Ebert is my favourite movie critic ever and a writer who has been a huge influence on my own career, I actually disagree with him pretty often. He for some reason really had a thing for Kevin James starring comedies and was notoriously hard on many horror movies.
But even the Ebert written reviews that I completely disagree with his opinion, I think are really informative and entertaining, and they are often my favourite because he eloquently opens me up to a different view. I don't take it personally or feel attacked when he doesn't love a movie that I adore or that he dares to love a movie that I hate. It is all part of the conversation, and conversation is a magical thing when it comes to art.
On the Die Hard review and several other reviews where Ebert goes against the consensus on a well-known movie, a commenter declares that it is an awful review. I read the review and I think Ebert captures exactly how he feels about the movie and it is full of wit, charm and insight. I also get a good idea how the movie may work for me even though it didn't for Ebert based off his review. I'd say it is a really good review. My guess, is that the commenter meant to write, 'I don't like this review because it is opposed to how I see this movie.'
Many people seem to want critics to reaffirm how they feel about a movie. They believe a critic is some mighty objective tastemaker who is declaring the undisputed value and worth of a movie. Except art doesn't work that way, and every person can see and connect with a movie differently. It is exciting that we have different opinions on things because that allows for stimulating and thoughtful conversation. The fact that there is no objective opinion on a movie is the very reason a show like Siskel & Ebert worked, otherwise it would have just been two guys nodding at each other.
So, what is the point of critics then? Well, their job is to share their own journey and experience with a film in order to stimulate and guide a conversation on movies. But if that is the case, what makes a critic any more qualified than the average movie goer? What does a movie critic bring to the table? What should a critic be able to do?
Well, thanks for asking hypothetical person who does not exist. Here are eight things that I feel are necessary to be a film critic and what they are expected to be able to do.
1. Love movies. Duh. I think, in modern times where there are YouTube movie reviewers and anyone can start-up their own movie blog (Hi!), this is a no-brainer and most critics today probably qualify. But back in the day when newspapers ruled the land and most major markets wanted to have their own film critic, there was a case that the guy who no longer wanted to cover puppy weddings was assigned to be the critic. It was nothing more than a job and they weren't necessarily film buffs. In order to write or talk about movies on a weekly basis and capture other people's attention, a critic needs to be passionate about film. They need to love pictures so much that they'd watch a bunch even if it wasn't their job. They need to watch several a week. And even more importantly, they need to love talking and analyzing them. In an ideal world, everyone should be passionate about their career and job, but while others may be decent in a job they don't love, I don't think a critic can connect with readers or listeners if they don't love it.
2. Watch every genre from different countries and decades. If you just like comedies or only want to see modern movies, then I don't think it is possible for you to be a good movie critic. Even if you only review new release horror movies, I feel you need to have a knowledge of all the other kinds of movies to be able to properly analyze and write about movies every week. A movie critic needs to know about all the genres and what type of movies were made decades ago or what movie are like in other countries in order to have the knowledge to properly dissect movies.
3. Have a thought-out opinion. If you ask most people what they think about a movie, you get a 'It was good' or 'It was okay' or 'I didn't like it.' You can probably guess that kind of deep and thoughtful analysis may not be enough as a film critic. I find it is real easy to find lots to say about movies I love and movies that I hate, but the true value of a critic is to be able to write five hundred to a thousand word of insightful and entertaining prose about a movie you felt was 'meh.' This is where a critic's historical knowledge of cinema and their insight on the technical aspects of the movie will aid them in writing something of value about a movie that may not aspire too much passion and feelings.
4. Movie reviews are art. Roger Ebert was a Pulitzer Prize winner for his reviews. Pauline Kael was a respected movie critic who is still held up as a great writer and one of the all-time great critics. Movie reviews are more than just deciding if a movie is good or bad. A great review can you make think or feel inspired or stir the emotions or be its own piece of entertainment. A successful movie critic is creative, thoughtful, honest and insightful.
5. Know the craft. A movie review is subjective, but when it comes from a professional critic, it still needs to be well-informed. A critic needs to discuss and analyze the elements of putting a film together like plot structure, editing, cinematography, sound and acting. One of the key jobs of a critic is being able to analyze how a film is edited in order to frame the narrative or shot in a way to trigger an emotions in the viewer or how technical components are used to explore particular themes. A good movie review should guide a reader or listener towards a better understanding of film techniques and literacy used to tell a story and create emotions in the viewer. A critic has seen so many movies and done enough research where they will know when a filmmaker is effective in connecting with a viewer and how they went about doing that.
6. Know the movie industry. A good critic knows the history of movies, and how it has evolved (or devolved) over the decades. They also know the major events and advancements that are currently going on and are aware of how the creative process works. It is hard to be properly critical of a movie if one isn't aware of what may have affected the making of that movie. One needs to understand how and why movies are made in order to proper analyze them. I also realize there is a fine line between being on top of movie news and being sucked into being free publicity for movie studios where you constantly hype casting choices and trailers. There is a place for talking about the big news in upcoming films as well as creating real conversations and discussions about the movies that have already been made.
7. Have a life outside of movies. I think the best advice I've been given on being an interesting and engaging writer is being told to have a life outside of writing. One of the ways to craft engaging and compelling articles and reviews is to have interesting and exciting life experiences. The more one experiences then the more one has to write about. A great critic has a well-rounded life that they can dip into to enhance their perspective and prose.
8. Strong communication skills. A movie critic can be a writer or podcaster or Youtuber or a person who yells stuff on a street corner. Okay, maybe the last one is a crazy person, but if you're trying to make a living writing about movies then there isn't much difference. One of the things that makes a critic different than just a person who likes to watch movies is their ability to engage and connect with an audience. A movie critic and reviewer are someone who not only has something to say but knows how to say it in a way that conveys their opinion and draws in an audience. It is less about being 'right' or being a tastemaker, but rather saying their view in an entertaining and worthwhile way. I love Roger Ebert despite the fact I probably disagree with him more than I agreed. I always thought he had great insight and enjoy seeing how he arrived at his opinions.
The internet seems to be more and more about the sport team mentality. You are either with me or against. You are right or wrong. I rarely think the actual world works properly that way/ It especially doesn't work in film criticism. One work of art is different to one person to the next. A critic is here to share their own journey and create productive, valuable and engaging conversations about great and not-sot great works.